Awaswas Wart Remedy: Poison Oak

Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is a woody shrub in the sumac family. All parts of the plant produce an oil called urushiol, which causes an allergic reaction in most people. Photo courtesy of  Vivienne Orgel.
Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is a woody shrub in the sumac family. All parts of the plant produce an oil called urushiol, which causes an allergic reaction in most people. Photo courtesy of Vivienne Orgel.

The Awaswas*, the native people indigenous to the Santa Cruz area of coastal California, could recognize hundreds of plant species and knew a variety of uses for each one. The land surrounding the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the adjacent Pilkington Creek are home to native plants that the Awaswas frequently used. Here are three examples of these native plants that had important uses for the Awaswas and other California Indians:

Poison Oak

If you have ever experienced the unrelenting itch of a poison oak rash, then you may be surprised to learn that California Indians (and it’s assumed the Awaswas) had many uses for this notorious plant. Some records say that the native peoples would eat a small piece of the very young leaf in early spring to prevent the poison from affecting them for the rest of the year (We do not recommend trying this at home as it could be extremely dangerous).

It was purportedly also used as a remedy for warts, persistent sores, and even skin cancer. Some California Indians used the plant’s black juices for tattooing. Others used the leaves to wrap bread and the branches to weave baskets.

Poison oak leaves an unforgettable rash.  This lobed leaf can be in colors of green and red. Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Elf
Poison oak leaves an unforgettable rash. This lobed leaf can be in colors of green and red. Photo courtesy of Elf.

Monkey-Flower

California Indians were not entirely immune to poison oak as records indicate that the leaves of the sticky monkey-flower were used to relieve the itch from a poison oak rash. The leaves were also used as a poultice for open sores and the young leaves could be eaten if gathered before flowering and boiled.

The sticky monkey-flower (Mimulus auranticacus) is the species of monkey-flower found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and throughout much of California. Photo courtesy of  Eugene Zelenko.
The sticky monkey-flower (Mimulus auranticacus) is the species of monkey-flower found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and throughout much of California. Photo courtesy of Eugene Zelenko.

Native Grasses

Grasses provided both food and shelter for California Indians. The common tule is probably the best known grass used by the Awaswas and other native peoples living in Santa Cruz and the greater Bay Area. Tule is a large grass that grows up to twenty feet high in marshy areas. It was used to build shelters, boats, and sleeping/sitting mats. There isn’t any tule growing along Pilkington Creek but you can check out this giant grass at Neary Lagoon.

Just as our familiar staple grains are domesticated versions of Eurasian wild grasses, other native Californian grasses have nutritious seeds that were an important part of the Awaswas’ diet. Using a basket called a seed beater, the seeds were shook loose from the grasses into a large conical gathering basket. The Awaswas then heated the seeds and separated the inedible papery chaff from the tasty seed by tossing them in the air using a winnowing basket (watch a short demonstrational video here). The seeds were then pounded into a paste called pinole or made into a bread.

*The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California, refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today the descendants of the area’s indigenous forbearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone as well as harvesting, gathering and taking game from the coastal uplands. Though not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Pilkington Creek Walking Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

takeTheTourbluetopoFontITC

Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used

    • California Indians. The Ohlone Peoples: Botanica, Animal and Mineral Resources. Susan Labiste. Primitive Ways Website. 2013.
    • California Indians. The Ohlone Peoples: Botanica, Animal and Mineral Resources. Susan Labiste. Primitive Ways Website. 2013.
    • Ohlone Medicine. Chuck Smith, Cabrillo College. 1999. Website.
    • Personal Communication with Jim Keller, Director of Conservation and Land Initiatives, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, November 28, 2012.
    • Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. M. Kat Anderson. University of California Press; 2005.
    • Tule: A Multipurpose Plant of the California Indians. Chuck Smith, Cabrillo College. 1999. Website.



About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

Related posts

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *